February 20, 2010 12:58:30 am
Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings
Edited by Vivan Sundaram
From the black-and-white Marg magazine that he brought out in 1972 to two superbly packaged mega volumes in 2010 artist Vivan Sundaram has single-mindedly orchestrated the making of the Amrita Sher-Gil myth. Connoisseurs will argue that an artist as feisty and outspoken as Sher-Gil does not deserve less. While many publications on the half-Indian,half-Hungarian artist have been greeted with plaudits,one wonders if the bottomless interiors of the Sher-Gil archive have been finally plumbed with this exhaustive volume that reproduces her diary entries,letters,photographs,sketches and paintings.
This latest offering from Sundaram who is also Sher-Gils nephew surpasses anything that may have been printed till date on her. Priced at Rs 5,750,the collectors item is glossy but lacks the frivolity of earlier coffee-table books on Sher-Gil. It also moves ahead of heavy-handed academic writing that some of the earlier books have displayed. The novelty of this avatar lies in its format: it spans her short life of 28 years (1913-1941) in refreshing epistolary style. It is a story told through the artists letters and diary entries that begin in 1920 when Amrita was barely seven years old.
The book began in 1990,when Sundaram and Indira Chandrasekhar set up Tulika Books. Sher-Gils Paris Years,when she studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts,has come from the research done for Kumar Shahanis film a project that never took off. Many friends of the Sher-Gils have translated several of her letters in Hungarian.
The book places Sher-Gils writing on the right-hand side,while arranging her early drawings,sketches and notes on the left-hand side. There is also ample scattering of sepia-tinted photographs taken by her father Umrao Singh Sher-Gil with his Blair Stereo Hawkeye camera. Umrao Singh had a natural talent for photography and spent many of his days meticulously documenting the family. Many of these images were seen in earlier publications,but Sundaram drums up a few fresh ones,placing them alongside little footnotes that situate the letters in their context. There are also full pages of Sher-Gils paintings a delight for those who will never possess her original works.
The scholarship around Sher-Gil has flowed from several directions since the 1930s. There were writers and critics like Karl Khandalavala,Rudi von Leyden and Mulk Raj Anand. The next set of voices we hear on Sher-Gil are from critics like Geeta Kapur,Gayatri Sinha and later Yashodhara Dalmia whose 2006 biography has been cited as one of the most complete novel-style book on Sher-Gil.
However,Sundarams family ties allow him unhindered access and agency that perhaps other biographers are found lacking in. He has been involved in the writing and making of over five books on his aunt,and two of his own projects,The Sher-Gil Archive and Re-Take on Amrita,have been inspired by her.
Marie Antoinette,the Hungarian matriarch of the Sher-Gil family,is essayed well through Amritas letters to her beloved Mucko. This is a Hungarian endearment Amrita used for her mother and means daughter. Telling since Amrita often mothered Antoinette who suffered from a nervous condition. Interestingly,Amrita extends this parenting game to her father as well,calling him Duci,although the few letters to him appear philosophical and far removed from the banter and cajoling present in her letters to Mucko. The reader is also treated to Amritas subtle manoeuvring out of an engagement with Yusuf Ali Khan,a rich nawab from Lucknow,on grounds of his being Mohammedan. We even get a glimpse of a sisterly spat as Amrita admonishes Indu for taking all her furs and coats away to India while she freezes in Paris.
The second volume projects the adult painter,and her correspondence with dealers,patrons,writers and art society heads. It details the life and struggle of Sher-Gil to climb the ladder of success in a male-dominated art world. The spark of excitement in this largely academic section of the book lies in the brief liaison hinted at through a correspondence and meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru affectionately referred to as JN by Sher-Gil in her almost blushing letter where she denies to her father any tie ups with the politician.
The Sher-Gil family has never been coy about documenting their lives. They have suavely and passionately collected the family legacy of photos,letters,news clippings artifacts and,of course,art works. Sundaram has been dipping into this archive,not only reproducing Amritas witty,stinging and frankly opinionated letters,diary entries but also creating his own art.
The larger question before us is,do these elaborately produced books lead to further scholarship on the artist? Some have dismissed the endless stream of books on Sher-Gil as an indulgent pastime of the petit bourgeoisie. Others have delved into the skin of the painter,revelling in her coquetry,talent and bohemian lifestyle. While Salman Rushdie has admitted to basing the character Aurora Zogoiby on Amrita in The Moors Last Sigh,Feroz Abbas Khans play Tumhari Amrita has taken huge chunks of the artists life,including the famous topless-on-the-beach reference. The fact of the matter remains that Amrita Sher-Gil is an icon. She is a subject that lends itself to both scholarship and popular culture she is a goldmine for the producers of coffee-table books,tee shirts and other merchandise even if her legacy of art is never fully understood. After all,she herself was just coming to terms with her idiom when her life was snatched away.
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